Scott Walker dispatches wife and kids to soften anti-gay tone

Republican responses to the Obergefell v Hodges have ranged from sad to angry. For his part, Scott Walker called for an override of the ruling via a constitutional amendment allowing states to define marriage, seemingly forgetting that he is running for president in 2016, not 2004.

Walker’s position is acceptably anti-gay for the Republican primary, while being borderline disqualifying for the general election — a predicament every GOP candidate will have to work through if they hope to win the White House next year. And Walker’s solution, it seems, is to soften his tone on the issue through surrogates; namely, his wife and kids.

From a Washington Post profile of Tonette Walker, on Walker’s stance concerning same-sex marriage:

In the political world, Walker drew immediate scrutiny for being particularly strident. In their house, Tonette Walker heard immediately about her husband’s response from the couple’s two sons, Matt and Alex, who are taking time off from college to help their father’s campaign. She told them to talk directly to him.

“That was a hard one,” Tonette said, pausing and choosing her words carefully. “Our sons were disappointed. . . . I was torn. I have children who are very passionate [in favor of same-sex marriage], and Scott was on his side very passionate.”

“It’s hard for me because I have a cousin who I love dearly — she is like a sister to me — who is married to a woman, her partner of 18 years,” she said.

She said her son Alex was her cousin’s best man at their wedding last year.

The couple, Shelli Marquardt and Cathy Priem, have vacationed and hosted parties with the Walkers, according to friends.

The day after the Supreme Court ruling, Tonette flew with her husband to Colorado, where he addressed a group of 4,000 conservatives and met with donors. It was widely noted that, despite a perfectly receptive audience, Walker did not repeat his sharp criticism of the Supreme Court decision.

There are a few things worth unpacking here. First, the wedding Tonette is referring to is likely the one her husband referenced when he said in April that he had not attended a same-sex wedding, but had been to a wedding reception for a gay relative. One can only hope that a scheduling conflict or other external impediment was what led Walker to skip a relative’s wedding ceremony — one in which his son was serving as best man. Skipping the ceremony over his deeply held religious objections would seem to be the kind of thing that would earn him a stern talking-to from his sons. Second, the Post‘s juxtaposition between Walker’s tone the day of and the day after the Obergefell ruling suggests to the reader that Tonette and her sons convinced him to reconsider his stridently anti-gay tone overnight — in other words, we don’t really have to worry about a Walker presidency because when push comes to shove, cooler heads in the family prevail.

Scott Walker, via Wikimedia Commons

Scott Walker, via Wikimedia Commons

Asked by the Post what effect his family has on his decision-making, Walker said of their disagreements: “It doesn’t mean I change my position,” but it may lead to “finding a different way of explaining it, so they can appreciate where I am coming from.”

It would be easy to write off the disagreement within the Walker household over marriage equality as a generational or gender divide, but that would be a bit too generous. While support for same-sex marriage is higher among younger voters and women, a majority of men and a plurality of Boomers are still in favor. What’s more, support for same-sex marriage among Republicans has been as high as 40 percent in recent surveys. Put another way, Walker has room to — ahem — walk back his extreme position on same-sex marriage in light of hearing compelling evidence from his family.

Of course, doing so would disqualify Walker from a GOP primary for another reason: It would mean that Walker is not the dominant patriarch that Republican voters demand in a strong leader. Heads of the household are allowed to consider their wives’ opinions, but they certainly aren’t allowed to let their wives “wear the pants,” as it were.

In short, Tonette Walker’s disclosure that she and her sons personally disagree with Scott Walker on marriage equality, but that disagreement has led only to a change in tone — not substance — on the issue, is a carefully-engineered gambit designed to thread a needle between primary and general electorates. Walker gets to be the anti-gay patriarch who appreciates and tolerates the concerns and disagreements of those close to him. He gets to have his anti-gay cake and eat it, too.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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